When to activate military air tankers

There is an ongoing discussion about military air tankers vs. commercial air tankers in the comments below our article about the activation of two California National Guard C-130 Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) air tankers. Some questioned using government resources when the services should be provided by private companies. The Economy Act of 1932 is frequently referenced during similar conversations, since it specifies the conditions under which a federal government agency can contract for services from another government agency.

The following is an excerpt from an article at the Department of Commerce:

The Economy Act of 1932, as amended, 31 U.S.C. § 1535, permits Federal Government agencies to purchase goods or services from other Federal Government agencies. An Economy Act purchase is permitted only if … the ordered goods or services cannot be provided by contract from a commercial enterprise, i.e., the private sector, as conveniently or cheaply as could be by the Government…

The interpretation of this as to how it applies to using military air tankers could get complicated if the requesting agency, i.e., U. S. Forest Service, makes a determination, honestly and without bias, about the existing need for air tankers. For 10 years the leaders of the USFS and the Department of Agriculture have been saying they have plenty of resources to fight wildfires, in spite of continuing budget reductions and increasing numbers of acres burned. In 2012 they were comfortable with 11, and later 9, large air tankers, even though some of the 7 air tanker studies they commissioned since 1996 have recommended 35 or more. And even though we had 44 in 2002.

Fast, aggressive, initial attack on new fires is necessary to reduce the number of fires that become megafires. This can save taxpayers money, and save lives as well. (Last year in Colorado six people died in wildfires.) Even if all of the 8, or later this year possibly 15, federal air tankers are not at the moment committed to ongoing fires, how many air tankers should we actually have standing by, ready for fast, aggressive initial attack? If they are all committed to fires, that would leave none, and that’s not an intelligent strategy.

If we actually need 25 or 35 or 45 large air tankers for ongoing fires and for initial attack, having only 8 or 15 on contract could continually justify implementing the Economy Act of 1932 to hire the 8 military MAFFS air tankers. But of course that is not feasible… or smart.

The logical strategy is to adequately fund a viable fleet of 25 to 45 modern, safe, large, very large, and scooper air tankers, consisting of an assortment of sizes and capabilities.

And the usual disclaimer: air tankers don’t put out fires. Under the right conditions, they can slow them down, allowing ground-based firefighters the opportunity to extinguish them. A drop from a helicopter or air tanker is usually only effective if it can be followed up by personnel on the ground.

2 Military air tankers activated for California fires

MAFFS 7, from the North Carolina Air National Guard’s 145th Airlift Wing. Department of Defense file photo.

On Friday the Governor of California activated two California National Guard C-130 aircraft from the 146th Airlift Wing to serve as air tankers in the fight against the wildfires burning in the state. Governor Edmund G. Brown responded to a request from Cal EMA and CAL FIRE to utilize the capabilities of the Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) which can be loaded into the cargo hold of the C-130s enabling them to drop up to 3,000 gallons of retardant on wildfires.

The state also authorized Channel Islands Air National Guard Station (CIANGS) in Port Hueneme where the C-130s are stationed, to be used as a retardant reload base for civilian and military aircraft working the fires in Callifornia, allowing shorter turn around times for those working the Springs fire about five miles away, which grew to 28,000 acres on Friday. CAL FIRE employees are working with Air National Guard members to get the tanker base operations up and running.

The interagency agreement between the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Defense requires that MAFFS be operational within 48 hours. However they usually have responded within 36 hours of the initial request. If that holds true this time, the California MAFFS may be available to fight fires by late in the day on Saturday, or more likely, on Sunday.

There are six other military MAFFS air tankers that have not yet been activated, stationed in Colorado, Wyoming, and North Carolina. One from North Carolina, MAFFS #7, crashed in South Dakota in 2012, killing four and injuring two.

The four MAFFS from Wyoming and North Carolina are scheduled to conduct their joint annual training and recertification next week in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The two aircraft units in Colorado held theirs a couple of weeks ago.

Californians are dealing with the effects of a very dry winter which has left the forests and brushlands with live fuel moistures that are typically only seen late in the summer. Multiple fires have broken out across the state in the last few days. Most have been kept to less than a couple of hundred acres due to aggressive initial attacks by firefighters in the air and on the ground, but at least three have burned about 3,000 acres or more.

Another airborne weapon will join the fire fight on Saturday, a DC-10 air tanker that carries 11,600 gallons of retardant.

California: Panther fire in Tehama County

Map Panther Fire
Panther Fire, heat detected by a satellite (red, yellow, and black circles) at 2:30 p.m. PT, May 2, 2013

(UPDATE at 7:53 a.m. PT, May 3, 2013)

More accurate mapping as a result of the infrared flight Thursday night produced a reduced acreage, now estimated at 6,393 acres and 10 percent containment.

Resources on the fire include 1,094 personnel, 81 engines, 32 hand crews, 7 helicopters, and 14 dozers.


(Originally posted at 9:26 p.m. PT, May 2, 2013)

The Panther fire in northeast California, 28 miles east of Red Bluff, has been burning for about 36 hours and has already blackened about 10,000 acres. It is located in Tehama County north of Butte Meadows and is 10 percent contained. It is burning in timber, spotting from clear cut block to clear cut block.

While the wind in southern California has been screaming the last two days, at the Panther Springs weather station 6 miles northwest of the Panther Fire the wind was quite sedate on Thursday, ranging from zero to three mph. However, reports from the fire say the fire has been pushed by strong down canyon winds. The humidity was low on Thursday, in the teens. The fire is in the Mill Creek and Deer Creek drainages. There is no imminent structure or infrastructure threat.

One of the U.S. Forest Service infrared mapping aircraft mapped the fire Thursday evening, so hopefully by Friday morning a detailed map will be available.

California: Springs fire in Ventura County spreads rapidly near hundreds of homes

Map of Springs Fire
Map of the Springs Fire near Camarillo, California in Ventura County. The red line was the perimeter at 10:30 p.m. PT, May 3, 2013. The white line is from 24 hours previously, the evening of May 2. (click to enlarge)

(UPDATE May 13, 2013)

Just to finish things up, the fire was 100 percent contained several days ago. The final size was 24,251 acres.


(UPDATE at 7:23 a.m. PT, May 6, 2013)

It is raining in the Los Angeles area this morning. Some of the weather stations near the fire have received about a quarter of an inch since Sunday night.

The incident commander of the Springs Fire is calling the fire 28,000 acres and 80 percent contained. They expect full containment on May 7.


(UPDATE at 6:50 a.m. PT, May 5, 2013)

Firefighters are continuing to make progress on the Springs Fire near Camarillo northwest of Los Angeles. The Incident Commander is calling it 60 percent contained and 28,000 acres. CAL FIRE reports that all evacuations have been lifted, with full containment expected on May 6.

There is minimal fire activity. The remaining firefighters continue to construct control lines, mop up, and patrol the fire perimeter. There is an increase in demobilization of firefighting resources.

Potrero Road is closed between Reino Road and Hidden Valley. Residents may return to their homes with proper identification. Residents are encouraged to access Hidden Valley from West Lake Boulevard.


(UPDATE at 7:10 a.m. PT, May 4, 2012)

The weather that caused the Springs Fire to spread rapidly over tens of thousands of acres has moderated significantly with much higher relative humidites and lower wind speeds. By late Friday night there was much less activity on the fire than earlier in the day. At 7 a.m. Saturday morning the winds over most of the fire varied from zero to 5 mph with humidities ranging from 30 to 74 percent, a drastic change from 30+ mph and 3 percent.

During the day on Friday the fire spread east across Point Mugu State Park coming up to the edge of Hidden Valley, an area with many huge mega-mansions.

With the latest map, updated at 10:30 p.m. Friday (shown above), fire managers will probably fine tune yesterday’s estimate of 28,000 acres, most likely reducing it by several thousand. The incident commander is calling it 30 percent contained.

CAL FIRE reports that 25 outbuildings have been destroyed, and there are 15 damaged residences, 5 damaged commercial properties, and 15 damaged outbuildings. They also said the Pacific Coast Highway has “reopened but with closures at Deer Creek Road, Potrero Road, Reino Road, and Yerba Buena Road”.

The resources assigned to the fire include 1,895 personnel, 55 engines, 48 hand crews, 6 air tankers, and 11 helicopters.


(UPDATE at 6:40 p.m. PT, May 3, 2013)

The Ventura County Fire Department (VCFD) is now estimating that the Springs Fire northwest of Los Angeles has burned 28,000 acres and is 20 percent contained.

At 5:15 p.m. they issued a correction of their earlier announcement. The Pacific Coast Highway has not reopened, due to possible rock slides.

CAL FIRE identified the following evacuations at 6:15 p.m. PT:

  • Mandatory evacuations effective immediately: South Newbury Park area, South of Potrero Road from Reino Road East to 930 West Potrero Road including Hidden Valley Road South.
  • Evacuations remain in effect for Potrero Road to Lewis Road, Yerea Buena Road and Deer Creek Road, Sycamore Canyon, Brrome Ranch and La Jolla Canyon.
  • Evacuations for the Cal State Channel Islands and Dos Vientos area have been lifted and reopened to residents only.

There has been no change in the reported number of structures damaged according to CAL FIRE: 15 damaged residences, 5 damaged commercial properties, and 15 damaged outbuildings.


(UPDATE at 5:10 p.m. PT, May 3, 2013)

According to the Ventura County Fire Department (VCFD), the the Springs fire that started in Camarillo Springs northwest of Los Angeles, “is now being called 18,000 acres and 20% containment”.

The Pacific Coast Highway will reopen to traffic in both directions at 5:00 p.m. Many cross streets, however, will remain closed. Motorists are advised to drive carefully and watch out for emergency vehicles that may still be in the area.

For current information about evacuations, visit the VCFD web site. Additional road closures and evacuations were announced Friday afternoon.


(UPDATE at 2:15 p.m. PT, May 3, 2013)

The Springs fire that started in Camarillo Springs northwest of Los Angeles continued to burn very actively overnight fanned by strong northeast winds. It progressed southwest all the way to the Pacific Ocean, about nine miles from the point of origin.

The map of the fire above shows the location of the fire detected by two different sources:

  1. The red and yellow squares represent the approximate location of heat detected by a satellite hundreds of miles above the Earth at 11:50 a.m. PT, May 3, 2013.
  2. The white line is the fire perimeter drawn by an Infrared Analyst who studied infrared data collected by a U.S. Forest Service fixed wing aircraft at 7 p.m. (PT or MT) Thursday evening, May 2. It should be much more accurate than the satellite data, but it is also about 17 hours older than the satellite information. The fire continued to spread after the fixed wing flight.

The Ventura County Fire Department (VCFD) reports that the fire has burned 10,000 acres with 10 percent containment, but that acreage figure is likely to increase substantially when they get a chance for more accurate mapping after sunrise. Firefighters spent the night protecting homes and cutting containment lines with hand tools and bulldozers. The air attack is scheduled to resume in the morning.

The VCFD said 2,000 homes have been threatened and 15 sustained damage, but none were destroyed.

CAL FIRE reports damage to 15 residences, 5 commercial properties, and 15 outbuildings. In addition they said 4,000 residences and 300 commercial properties are threatened.

The Pacific Coast Highway remains closed. For current evacuation information visit the Ventura County Fire Department web site.

The Red Flag Warning is still in effect until 5 p.m. on Friday, but the winds overnight at the nearby Cheeseboro weather station decreased substantially, from  25-30 mph with gusts to 45-50 mph on Thursday, to south-southeast at 8 mph with gusts to 14 mph at 1:38 p.m. PT Friday. The relative humidity remains extremely low, at 3 percent. The weather forecast for Friday calls for 18 mph winds with gusts to 25, decreasing at 11 a.m. to 10 mph with gusts to 16. The wind direction will change at 11 a.m. from northeast to southwest, a 180-degree switch, which could create problems for firefighters.

Resources on the fire include 925 personnel, 90 engines, 20 hand crews, 6 air tankers, and 8 helicopters.

DC-10 air tanker
DC-10 air tanker at Rapid City, April 23, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert

One of the DC-10 Very Large Air Tankers has been activated by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CAL FIRE. Rick Hatton, President of 10 Tanker Air Carrier, the company that operates the two DC-10 air tankers, confirmed for us today that it will come on duty tomorrow, May 4. He said most likely the one they will use will be Tanker 910, the aircraft that visited four cities last week on the way back from scheduled maintenance in Michigan.
Continue reading “California: Springs fire in Ventura County spreads rapidly near hundreds of homes”

Summit fire, pushed by strong winds near Banning, California

Summit fire, Banning Calif
Summit fire, 3:49 p.m. PT, May 1, 2013 ABC7 screen grab. (Click to enlarge)

( UPDATED at 9:28 p.m. PT, May 2, 2013)

There was no change in the size of the Summit fire on Thursday, but by 8 p.m. firefighters called it 55 percent contained, up from 40 percent at 2:37 p.m. today.

This will be our last update of the Summit Fire, unless there is a significant increase in the size of the fire.


(UPDATED at 3:41 p.m. PT, May 2, 2013)

The fire is still described by the Riverside County Fire Department as having burned 2,956 acres, which is the same size as Wednesday night. At 2:37 p.m. the incident commander said it is 40 percent contained and they “are making good progress on the fire line”.


(UPDATED at 8:00 a.m. PT, May 2, 2013)

The Summit Fire east of Los Angeles near Banning and Beaumont has not grown significantly overnight, according to the Riverside County Fire Department, and remains at 2,956 acres. All evacuation orders have been lifted and the containment has increased to 40 percent.

The weather forecast for Thursday will be very conducive to rapid fire spread with winds expected to be out of the east at 26 to 30 mph with gusts to 48 mph. After 9 a.m. the relative humidity will drop below 10 percent, bottoming out at 5 percent. The Red Flag Warning for the area and the strong winds will affect the fire area until Friday at 6 p.m.


(UPDATE at 11:30 p.m. PT, May 1, 2013)

The Riverside County Fire Department reports that the Summit fire near Banning and Beaumont east of Los Angeles has now burned 2,956 acres and is 35 percent contained. The rate of spread of the fire has slowed compared to how fast it was moving during the daylight hours. The winds measured at the Cabazon weather station have diminished to 10 mph, gusting to 13 out of the east, but the relative humidity remains very, very low, at 4 percent and should not exceed 10 or 11 percent overnight. The weather forecast for Thursday remains the same as we reported earlier, with east winds of 25 to 34 mph with gusts to 62 mph, along with single digit relative humidities and no chance of rain.


(UPDATE at 4:27 p.m. PT, May 1, 2013)

The Riverside County Fire Department at 4:10 reported that the Summit Fire near Banning and Beaumont has grown to 1,500 acres.

If firefighters are not able to stop the spread of the Summit fire today (and that is going to be very tough to do) the weather on Thursday and Friday is not going to help. The very strong east-component winds are expected to continue and should be even stronger on Thursday at 25 to 34 mph with gusts to 62 mph, along with single digit relative humidities. Friday will be about the same with winds of 23 mph gusting to 41.


(UPDATE at 4:16 p.m. PT, May 1, 2013)

Firefighters near a house on the Summit fire a few seconds after a retardant drop by a P2V air tanker. (screen grab from ABC7 video)
Firefighters on the Summit Fire near the U.S. Forest Service fire station at Banning, few seconds after a retardant drop by a P2V air tanker. (screen grab from ABC7 video)


(Originally published at 3:25 p.m. PT, May 1, 2013. Photo updated at 3:49 p.m. PT.) 

Dozens of hand crews and dozens of engines are on order for a rapidly spreading wildfire in southern California near Banning. The fire is burning intensely and is growing very quickly.  At least one home has burned as a 15 to 20 mph wind, with gusts above 30, push the fire through the California brush. As we reported earlier today, the area is under a Red Flag Warning for hot, dry, windy weather. Below are the 2:14 p.m. PT weather observations for the nearby weather station at Cabazon. Note that the relative humidity was 5 percent.

Cabezon weather obs

At 3:25 p.m. PT the Riverside County Fire Department (RCFD) said the fire, which was reported at 12:38 p.m. today, had burned about 200 acres and had no containment. That acreage figure is going to be much higher later in the day. The RCFD said six air tankers and six helicopters are working the fire or en route. Some communities are under evacuation orders. The RCFD has more information about evacuation.

As this is written, a local TV station, ABC7, is live-streaming large, excellent quality video images of the fire, however this service will probably come and go as the helicopter has to refuel and the news priorities of the station change. It’s the best live-streaming news video I’ve ever seen. Fox in LA also has intermittent live video.

We will update this article as this fire continues to grow.

Below is a map of the fire, as detected by a satellite at 1:47 p.m. PT May 1, 2013.

Map Summit fire Banning
The red squares represent heat on the Summit Fire detected by a satellite at 1:47 p.m. PT, May 1, 2013. The fire is near Banning, CA